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Reading as Reasoning 















Reading as Reasoning: A Study 

of Mistakes in Paragraph 




Teachers College, Columbia University 







V •;*.*.•. 




Teachers College, Columbia University 

It seems to be a common opinion that reading (understanding 

the meaning of printed words) is a rather simple compounding of 

habits. Each word or phrase is supposed, if known to the reader, 

to call up its sound and meaning and the series of word or phrase 

meanings is supposed to be, or be easily transmuted into, the total 

^ thought. It is perhaps more exact to say that little attention has 

been paid to the dynamics whereby a series of words whose meanings 

are known singly produces knowledge of the meaning of a sentence or 


»y It will be the aim of this article to show that reading is a very 

•^ elaborate procedure, involving a weighing of each of many elements 

\ in a sentence, their organization in the proper relations one to another, 

V ^ the selection of certain of their connotations and the rejection of others, 

and the cooperation of many forces to determine final response. In 

fact we shall find that the act of answering simple questions about a 

simple paragraph like the one shown below includes all the features 

-^ characteristic of typical reasonings. 

Read this and then write the answers to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. Read it again as 
often as you need to. 

In Franklin, attendance upon school is required of every child between the ages 
of seven and fourteen on every day when school is in session unless the child is so 
ill as to be unable to go to school, or some person in his house is ill with a contagious 
disease, or the roads are impassable. 

1. What is the general topic of the paragraph? 

2. On what day would a ten-year-old girl not be expected to attend school? 



3. Between what years is attendance upon school compulsory in Franklin? 

4. How many causes are stated which make absence excusable? 

5. 'VMiat kind of illness may permit a boy to stay away from school, even though 
he is not sick himself? 

6. What condition in a pupil would justify his non-attendance? 

7. At what age may a boy leave school to go to work in Franklin? 

Consider first the following responses which were found among 
those made to Questions 1, 2, 5 and 6 above by two hundred pupils in 
Grade 6. (All are quoted exactly save that capitals are used at the 
beginning here regardless of whether the pupils used them.) 

Fercents. per thousand 

J 1. Unanswered 18 180 

Franklin 4^ 45 

In Franklin 1 10 

Franklin attendance 1 10 

Franklin School IH 15 

Franklin attending school 1 10 

Days of Franklin }4 5 

School days of Franklin >^ 5 

Doings at Franklin 1 10 

Pupils in Franklin H 5 

Franklin attends to his school ^ 5 

It is about a boy going to Franklin }4 5 

It was a great inventor J^ 5 

Because its a great invention }^i 5 

The attendance of the chidren 3^ 5 

The attendance in Franklin J^ 5 

School 7K 75 

To tell about school M 5 

About school 4 40 

What the school did when the boy was ill M 5 

What the child should take }i 5 

If the child is ill 2 20 

How old a child should be }i 5 

If the child is sick or contagious disease }i 5 


Illness 1 10 

On diseases ^ 5 

Very Ul 3 30 

An excuse 2 20 

The roads are impassable 1 10 

Even rods are impossible M 5 

A few sentences y% 5 

Made of complete sentences K 5 

A sentence that made sense H 5 

A group of sentences making sense H 5 

A group of sentences 3 30 

Subject and predicate K 5 

Subject Yt 5 

The sentence M 5 

A letter Yi 5 

Capital 5K 56 

A capital letter ^ 5 

To begin with a capital 2 20 

The first word ^^ 5 

A general topic Y, 5 

Good topic Y 5 

Leave half an inch space 2J^ 25 

The heading M 5 

Period Yi 5 

An inch and a half }^ 5 

An inch and a half capital letter Y 5 

The topic is civics Y 5 

The answer Y 5 

J 2. Unanswered 6 60 

Unless the child is so ill as to be unable to go to school 41 410 

Unless the child is unable to go to school Y ^ 

Unless she is ill or the roads are impassable 1 10 

Roads are impassable 1 10 

When his baby or brother have some kind of disease. . . 1 10 

When a parent is ill Y ^ 

If her father or mother died Y 5 

On her birthday 6H 65 

On her fourteenth birthday Y ^ 

On every day 4 40 

On any day Y 5 

Expected every day \Y 15 

On Monday and for 5 days a week Y 5 

On Monday 1 10 

On Friday 1 10 

When school is in session 1 10 

The beginning of the term Y 5 

Fourteen year Y 5 

Age 11 M 5 


She is allowed to go to school when 6 j-ears 3^ 5 

A very bad throat i^ 5 

TMien better y^ 5 

J 5. Unanswered 2 20 

If mother is ill 51^ 55 

Headache, ill 1^ 5 

A sore neck y^ 5 

Headache, toothache or earache J^ 5 

WTien a baby is sick }/^ 5 

Playing sickness J^ 6 

Serious J^ 5 

When the roads cannot be used J^ 6 

Contagious disease, roads impassable IJ^ 15 

He cannot pass the hall 3^ 5 

A note 1^ 5 

J 6. Unanswered 15 150 

111 with a contagious disease 5 50 

Seven years old }^ 5 

By bringing a note 6 60 

When going with his mother to his cousin J^ 5 

Is to go his mother J^ 5 

When he is well and strong J^ 5 

To have a certificate from a doctor that the disease is all 

over ]^ 5 

Somebody else must have a bad disease 3^ 5 

Tom shoes 3^ 6 

Neat attendance 3^ 5 

When he acts as if he is innocent 3^ 5 

Being good 3^ 6 

By being early 3^ 6 

Get up early 3^ 5 

Come to school 13^ 16 

Be at school every day 3^ 5 

If he lost his lessons 3^ 5 

Illness lateness or truancy 3^ 5 

A bad boy 3^ 5 

By not going to school 3^ 5 

None 3^ 6 

Not sick no condition and mother not ill 3^ 5 

Not very good 3^ 5 

When you come you get your attendance marked 3^ 5 

Of being absent 3^ 5 

His attendance was fair 3^ 5 

Truant 1 10 

If some one at his house has a contagious disease 63'^ 65 

When roads 3^ 5 

If he was excused 3^ 5 

Not smart 3^ 6 


If his father or mother died K 5 

By not staying home or playing hookey 3^ 5 

In general in this and all similar tests of reading, the responses 
do not fall into a few clearly defined groups — correct, unanswered, 
error No. 1, error No. 2, and so on. On the contrary they show 
a variety that threatens to baffle any explanation. We can, however, 
progress toward an explanation, by using the following facts and 

In correct reading (1) each word produces a correct meaning, 

(2) each such element of meaning is given a correct weight in compari- 
son with the others, and (3) the resulting ideas are examined and 
validated to make sure that they satisfy the mental set or adjustment 
or purpose for whose sake the reading was done. Reading may be 
wrong or inadequate (1) because of wrong connections with the words 
singly, (2) because of over-potency or under-potency of elements, or 

(3) because of failure to treat the ideas produced by the reading as 
provisional, and so to inspect and welcome or reject them as they 

Everybody, of course, understands that (1) plays a part but 
it is not so clearly understood that a word may produce all degrees 
of erroneous meaning for a given context, from a slight inadequacy 
to an extreme perversion. 

Thus Franklin in the paragraph quoted (J) varies from its exact 
meaning as a local unit through degrees of vagueness to meaning a 
man's name (as in "Franklin attends to his school" as a response to 
question 1), or to meaning a particular personage (as in "It was a 
great inventor" as a response to question 1). Thus Contagious in 
paragraph J permits responses to question 5 (What kind of illness may 
permit a boy to stay away from school, even though he is not sick 
himself?) ranging from "Scarlet fever, chicken pox, measles or diph- 
theria," through "Scarlet fever," "Headache," "Serious," "Hay 
fever," "Pimple," to "Contagious or roads impassable," and "All 
kinds of disease." Thus Paragraph in J 1 when over-potent produces 
responses ranging from "A group of sentences making sense" through 
"A group of sentences," and "A few sentences," to "The sentence," 
"Subject and predicate," "Begin with a capital," "A letter," and 
"Commas and periods." 

In particular, the relational words, such as pronouns, conjunctions 
and prepositions, have meanings of many degrees of exactitude. 
They also vary in different individuals in the amount of force they exert. 


A pupil may know exactly what though means, but he may treat a 
sentence containing it much as he would treat the same sentence with 
and or or or if in place of the though. 

The importance of the correct weighting of each element is less 
appreciated. It is very great, a very large percentage of the mistakes 
made being due to the over-potency of certain elements or the under- 
potency of others. 

Consider first the over-potency of elements in the questions. 
The first question about paragraph J was, "What is the general 
topic of the paragraph?" A large group of answers show over- 
potency of paragraph. Such are those quoted above to show variation 
in the understanding of the word. We also find an over-potency of ^op 
(in topic) combined with that of paragraph, resulting in such responses 
as; "Leave a half -inch space," "An inch and a half," "An inch and a 
half capital letter," "The topic of paragraph is one inch in," 

The second question was: "On what day would a ten-year-old 
girl not be expected to attend school?" We find under-potency 
of not resulting in answers like "When school is in session" or "Five 
days a week." We find under-potency of day resulting in responses 
like "She is allowed to go to school when 6 years," "Age 11," and 
"Fourteen years." 

We find over-potency of day shown by "Monday," "Wednes- 
day," and "Friday"; of ten-year-old girl in "The ten-year-old girl 
will be 5A." 

Ten-year-old is over-potent in an interesting way, namely, in 
the very large number of responses of "On her birthday." Over- 
potency of Attend school seems to be one part of the causation of 
"To attendance with Franklin," "Ever morning at half past 8," 
"She should," and "Because he did learn." 

Consider next over- and under-potency of the words or phrases 
in the paragraph. The following list of responses show that each 
of ten words taken from the paragraph is over-potent so as to appear 
clearly influential in the response to each of the first three questions 
(and in seven of the cases to the fourth question as well). These occur 
within five hundred responses made by children within grades 5 to 8. 
Cases of under-potency would be still easier to collect. 

The questions, I may remind the reader, were as follows: 

1. What is the general topic of the paragraph? 

2. On what day would a ten-year-old girl not be expected to attend school? 

3. Between what years is attendance upon school compulsory in Franklin? 

4. How many causes are stated which make absence excusable? 



(The numbers refer to the question to which the words were the response.) 
Franklin 1. FrankHn. 1. FrankUn and the diseases. 1. FrankHn topic. 

2. Franklin. 

3. Because it is a small city. 3. Franklin was in school 141 years, 
attendance 1. Attendance. 

2. To attendance with Franklin. 

3. In FrankHn attendance upon school is required. 3. Attending school 
130 days. 

school 1. School. 1. They must know their lessons. 

2. In the beginning of school. 

3. School in session. 3. In the years of school, 
seven 1. Seven and fourteen. 1. How old a child should be. 

2. He should attend school at 7 years. 2. Between seven and fourteen. 

3. Seven years. 

4. Under seven. 

fourteen 1. Every child between seven and fourteen. 1. In Franklin how old 
they are. 

2. Fourteen of every day. 2. Fourteen years. 

3. Fourteen years. 3. Fourteen. 

4. 7 to 14. 
every 1. Every child. 

2. Expected every day. 2. On every day. 

3. Every year. 3. Every child between fourteen or thirteen. 

4. Every day. 

ill 1. Illness. 1. Very ill. 1. If the child is ill. 

2. 111. 2. A very bad throat. 

3. He cannot go to school unless ill. 

4. When child is ill. 4. Must be sick, 
contagious 1. Contagious disease. 

2. If she is sick or has a contagious disease. 

3. Contagious disease. 

4. Contagious disease. 
disease 1. Fever. 1. About disease. 

2. Often sick. 

3. Unless ill or contagious disease. 3. Disease. 

4. A terrible disease going out. 4. Because when a boy has disease, 
impassable 1. The roads are impassable. 1. Snow. 

2. When roads are impassable. 

3. Seven to fourteen years or the roads are impassable. 

4. Or the roads are impassable. 

To make a long story short, inspection of the mistakes shows 
that the potency of any word or word group in a question may be far 
above or far below its proper amount in relation to the rest of the 
question. The same holds for any word or word group in the para- 
graph. Understanding a paragraph implies keeping these respective 
weights in proper proportion from the start or varying their propor- 


tions until they together evoke a response which satisfies the purpose 
of the reading. 

Understanding a paragraph is hke solving a problem in mathe- 
y matics. It consists in selecting the right elements of the situa- 

tion and putting them together in the right relations, and also with 
the right amount of weight or influence or force for each. The mind is 
assailed as it were by every word in the paragraph. It must select, 
repress, soften, emphasize, correlate and organize, all under the influ- 
ence of the right mental set or purpose or demand. 

Consider the complexity of the task in even a very simple case 
such as answering question 6 on paragraph D, in the case of children 
of grades 6, 7 and 8 who well understand the question itself. 

John had two brothers who were both tall. Their names were Will and Fred. 
John's sister, who was short, was named Mary. John liked Fred better than either 
of the others. All of these children except Will had red hair. He had brown hair. 

6. Who had red hair? 

The mind has to suppress a strong tendency for Will had red 
hair to act irrespective of the except which precedes it. It has to 
suppress a tendency for all these children . . . had red hair to act 
irrespective of the except Will. It has to suppress weaker tendencies 
for John, Fred, Mary, John and Fred, Mary and Fred, Mary and Will, 
Mary, Fred and Will, and every other combination that could be a 
"TFAo," to act irrespective of the satisfying of the requirement "had 
red hair according to the paragraph." It has to suppress tendencies 
for John and Will or brown and red to exchange places in memory, for 
irrelevant ideas like nobody or brothers or children to arise. That it 
has to suppress them is shown by the failures to do so which occur. 
The Will had red hair in fact causes one-fifth of children in grades 6, 
7 and 8 to answer wrongly, * and about two-fifths of children in grades 
3, 4 and 5. Insufficient potency of except Will* makes about one child 
in twenty in grades 6, 7 and 8 answer wrongly with "all the children," 
"all," or "Will Fred Mary and John." 

Reading may be wrong or inadequate because of failure to treat 
the responses made as provisional and to inspect, welcome and reject 
them as they appear. Many of the very pupils who gave wrong 
responses to the questions would respond correctly if confronted with 
them in the following form : 

* Some of these errors are due to essential ignorance of "except," though that 
should not be common in pupils of grade 6 or higher. 


Is this foolish or is it not? 

The day when a girl should not go to school is the day when school is in session. 

The day when a girl should not go to school is the beginning of the term. 

The day etc. ... is Monday. 

The day is fourteen years. 

The day is age eleven. 

The day is a very bad throat. 

Impassable roads are a kind of illness. 

He cannot pass the ball is a kind of illness. 

They do not, however, of their own accord test their responses 
by thinking out their subtler or more remote implications. Even 
very gross violations against common sense are occasionally passed, 
such as letting Mary give Tom a blue dog, or giving "Thought the 
man fat out " as an answer to 1 1. Usually, however, the irrelevance or 
inconsistency concerns something in the question or the paragraph and 
the failure to heed it is closely akin to the under-potency of certain 


Nearly fifteen thousand of the city's workers joined in the parade on September 
seventh, and passed before two hundred thousand cheering spectators. There 
were workers of both sexes in the parade, though the men far out-numbered the 

1. What is said about the number of persons who marched in the parade? 

It thus appears that reading an explanatory or argumentative 
paragraph in his text-books on geography or history or civics, and 
(though to a less degree) reading a narrative or description, involves 
the same sort of organization and analytic action of ideas as occur in 
thinking of supposedly higher sorts. This view is supported by the 
high correlations between such reading and verbal completion tests, 
Binet-Simon tests, analogies tests and the like. These correlations, 
when corrected for attenuation, are probably, for children of the 
same age, as high as +.80. 

It appears likely, therefore, that many children fail in certain 
features of these subjects not because they have understood and 
remembered the facts and principles but have been unable to organize 
and use them; or because they have understood them but have been 
unable to remember them; but because they never understood them. 

It appears likely also that a pupil may read fluently and feel 
that the series of words are arousing appropriate thoughts without 
really understanding the paragraph. Many of the children who 
made notable mistakes would probably have said that they under- 



stood the paragraph and, upon reading the questions on it, would 
have said that they understood them. In such cases the reader finds 
satisfying solutions of those problems which he does raise and so 
feels mentally adequate; but he raises only a few of the problems which 
should be raised and makes only a few of the judgments which he 
should make. Thus one may read paragraph I with something like the 
following actual judgments: 

Fifteen thousand did something — there was a parade — September 
seventh was the day — there were two hundred ih'd.u^and something — 
there was cheering — workers were in the parade— both sexes in the parade 
— the men outnumbered the women. 

Contrast these with the following which may be in the mind of the 
expert reader: 

Nearly fifteen thousand — not quite, but nearly — of the city 's workers — 
people icho worked for a living — joined in the parade — a big parade of 
nearly 16,000— on September seventh — the parade was in the fall — they 
passed before two hundred thousand cheering spectators — two hundred 
thousand saw the parade — they cheered it — there were workers of both 
sexes — there were men workers and women workers in the parade — the 
men far outnumbered the women. Many more men than women were 
in the parade. 

In educational theory, then, we should not consider the reading 
of a text-book or reference as a mechanical, passive, undiscrim- 
inating task, on a totally different level from the task of evaluating 
or using what is read. While the work of judging and applying doubt- 
less demands a more elaborate and inventive organization and control 
of mental connections, the demands of mere reading are also for the 
active selection which is typical of thought. It is not a small or 
unworthy task to learn "what the book says." 

In school practice it appears likely that exercises in silent reading 
to find the answers to given questions, or to give a summary of the 
matter read, or to list the questions which it answers, should in large 
measure replace oral reading. The vice of the poor reader is to say the 
words to himself without actively making judgments concerning what 
they reveal. Reading aloud or listening to one reading aloud may 
leave this vice unaltered or even encouraged. Perhaps it is in their 
outside reading of stories and in their study of geography, history, 
and the like, that many school children really learn to read. 



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